leadership dot #3703: muscle

It’s often So. Much. Easier. just to do things yourself or to tell others what they need to do — but that is a short-term solution. To truly build capacity in others you need to strengthen their critical thinking abilities and help them learn how to analyze, decipher, and decide on their own.

I liken critical thinking to a muscle — that you can only build through repetition and use. As a supervisor, you can help your staff members build that muscle by crafting ways to give them reps. Examples of this include:

  • Instead of instantly jumping in to answer a question, ask the person what they would do.
  • Ask for an option or two instead of going with the first alternative that is presented.
  • Incorporate questions in various settings — during meetings, in 1:1s, while on-site.
  • Cultivate ways for staff to provide an analysis of a scenario — either in real-time or a post-event debriefing.
  • Frame your questions to require more than one answer: “What was the best part of the project and what would you change?
  • Require reflection often — not just at performance evaluation time. Ask people to share what they learned after a conference or webinar as well as how they might adapt it to your situation.
  • Develop your coaching skills by using one of Michael Bungay Stanier’s 7 Essential Questions when working with your staff.

As a supervisor, you can develop your critical thinking muscle as you ascertain learning styles and determine who needs extra confidence in this area. For example, beginners may need advance notice that their thinking skills will be in play, others do best when allowed to write out their thoughts instead of speaking them, and some may need to be explicitly called on if you want them to share.

It may be easier at the moment to give an answer or to attend to that detail, but investing the time to build capacity is a critical skill for the long-term success of both you and your staff. Take your mental workouts as seriously as your physical ones.

leadership dot #3688: raincheck

Our local grocery store is running a week of daily specials and I went to purchase my bargain-priced butter — only they were sold out. I asked if they were offering rainchecks and the answer was “we stopped giving them out at 5:00.” This arbitrary decision didn’t sit well with me, so I asked why. The clerk said: “That’s what management told us to say if customers asked.”

What?! I wonder how the clerk felt as he parroted back this ridiculous line.

The situation made me think of the Harvard Business Review article that I quote often in my supervision sessions. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones surveyed employees to determine what characteristics made up the “best workplace on Earth.” One of five answers: “Stupid rules don’t exist.”

Employees don’t want to deliver BS excuses to customers and see them infuriated because the policies don’t make sense. They want to be the “helpful smile in every aisle” as they allegedly were hired to be.

Don’t put your staff in the position of being the bad guy. If you determine that an undesirable policy is absolutely necessary, communicate it widely to help set customer expectations, make it universal, and have someone with authority available to enforce it. Throwing in an apology, regret, or an ounce of compassion wouldn’t hurt either.

Stupid rules are just that — stupid — and cost more in ill-will for everyone than they save.

leadership dot #201a: cave days

I don’t really like the word “retreat”. It conjures up either literal images of armies retreating and being pushed back in defeat, or the more modern-day images of sitting in long meetings with flip charts posted throughout the walls. I do, however, believe in the power of going off-site and changing the environment in order to do some strategic thinking or more intentional planning.

So we call our version of deep thinking “Cave Days” — as in going away to hide in a cave to escape the daily distractions. I spent yesterday afternoon out of the office at such a Cave Day experience –clarifying the transitions and processes of new staff. The informal environment allows people to be more focused and candid and, as a result, we were able to have discussions that could have never occurred sitting around a table in a meeting setting. By dedicating a significant chunk of time to this topic, it signified the importance of it. I hope it also heightened everyone’s commitment to achieving results and then implementing them.

I encourage you to think about the key things you need to discuss and commit to a Cave Day-type environment in which to process them. Sometimes we need to alter our routine in an effort to alter our thinking — and changing when/where we broach the topic can have an immediate impact on that.

Originally published in modified form on December 19, 2012 

leadership dot #105a: dive lunches

Once each month, several of us from work eat lunch at a local establishment that is off the beaten path. We call these “dives” but others may call them Ma and Pa diners, greasy spoons, bars, or other similar terms of endearment. It started as a way for me to keep in touch with a colleague that transferred to another division at work, but it has since grown into a rotating group of a dozen or more people who have participated in one of our field trips.  

What makes our “Dive Lunch” crew special is the mix of participants. Our regulars include the president, president emeritus, a retired faculty member, a couple of the vice presidents, directors, assistant directors, faculty, and people from four of our five divisions. We have even been joined by the chair of the board of trustees when we went to a dive she recommended! It is our own mini-version of a cash mob (as most of these places literally only take cash).  
The wonder of Dive Lunches goes well beyond the food — even though we have found that to be surprisingly good. These meals instill camaraderie and build relationships that would never be fused inside a meeting room or office. There is a sense of experimentation, creativity, and risk-taking as we try places none of us have ever visited before. There is a bonding and shared experience that carries over into working partnerships.   
The next time you’re ready to head to the same old place with the same people, think about inviting someone new to go on an adventure with you. We’ve found that those who break onion rings together do projects well together!  
Originally published in a modified form on September 14, 2012

leadership dot #4a: purple clover

While beth is on vacation, please enjoy several days of republished favorites…

When I was a kid, I had a rabbit named Fluffernutter (peanut butter-colored top, white bottom — like the sandwich with marshmallow fluff).

I thought of Fluffernutter last night when I came upon an empty lot full of purple clover.  That rabbit L-O-V-E-D purple clover.  Even though it has been a couple of decades since I fed it to him, I still can’t walk past it without thinking of the pure joy that it brought.  For whatever reason, purple clover was the favorite, much more than white clover or treats or grass.

Your challenge as a supervisor is to learn the equivalent of purple clover for your staff.  In my world, I can best thank/praise someone with a new pen; for another, it is with a Pez dispenser; yet someone else will feel most loved with a certain kind of candy or even cereal.  The small tokens of appreciation go further than the infrequent monetary raises because in addition to saying “thank you”, they also communicate “I know you.”  There is no better way to inspire.

Originally published in modified form on June 5, 2012

leadership dot #3645: relinquish

It’s tempting, and maybe even prudent, for a manager to form a search committee and allow others to do the time-consuming task of interviewing candidates. For many reasons, involving multiple people in the hiring process makes sense.

But too often, with the invitation for input comes a (false) expectation that the committee’s evaluation is the final word. If you’re the hiring manager, never relinquish your ability to make the ultimate decision. Selecting your staff is too important to leave to others.

One way to avoid awkwardness is to be clear upfront regarding the role of those asked to participate in the search. A better technique to eliminate any false expectations is to ask the search committee to outline the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, but never to ask them to rank the candidates. With this system, the search committee can provide you with valuable insights regarding areas where the new hire may need coaching or allow you to ask references about perceived deficiencies, but it leaves the final judgment to you.

Ultimately, if you’re the manager, you are responsible for the performance of the person you hire. You should be responsible right from the start.

leadership dot #3643: decoy

Fleet Admiral William Leahy was the top officer in the entire US military during World War II. He held many positions during his tenure, including Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, and President Roosevelt relied on him for military strategy during this tenuous time.

One of the key operations under his command was D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France that occurred on this date in 1944. It was a complex and critical event — yet Leahy was not in Washington to oversee it. Instead, he was visiting his hometown of Hampton, Iowa, a rural village far from any military action. Leahy shared his travel plans widely and intentionally — as a decoy to the Germans who were (incorrectly) convinced that a major assault would not occur when the Admiral was not there to lead the command.

Remember that at this time instant communication was limited — no fax, email, text, or instant messaging. He could communicate via an unsecured phone line — or, trust his staff to use their best judgment to execute orders. He chose the latter.

When I hear about micromanagers, I think of Admiral Leahy and how D-Day happened without his presence. Don’t feel guilty about taking a vacation or setting boundaries about your availability. If you have good people and provide them with resources and clear expectations, you don’t need to be there every minute.

Commemorative monument of D-Day landing at Utah Beach. Sainte Marie du Mont, France.

leadership dot #3631: explicit

A newer employee debriefed an event with his boss and they bantered with some pretty tough critiques about what had happened. These weren’t visible shortcomings, but rather things they noticed from behind-the-scenes. As the review concluded, the supervisor counseled the employee not to share the harsh feedback with those who had just attended the event; “With them, we want to remain positive,” she said.

A few days later, the organization’s leader requested an action that the employee did not believe would work. The original lesson came to mind — and he knew that he must remain positive about the change and own it — telling his staff that “I” decided to try the new process rather than calling out the leader.

I love that the boss helped the newer employee to understand the influence he has on those who look up to him and reminded him to be intentional about the emotions and tone that he conveys to others. And because the employee internalized the lesson, he knew that he needed to take ownership in the second scenario and not let his misgivings trickle down to negatively impact his team.

It’s likely things could have played out differently if the supervisor had not been explicit with her initial teachings after the debrief. Especially with a newer employee, the natural reaction is to continue venting with others or at least to convey that there were problems, and it’s also plausible that there would be grumbling as the staff worked through a new process that did not make sense to the leader. Instead, a few minutes of intentional instruction mitigated a river of negativity now and imparted lessons that will pay dividends in the future.

If you are a supervisor, developing your staff is your most important job. Take those extra few minutes to be clear about your expectations — both what you want your employee to do and how you want them to act.

leadership dot #3608: development

I was asked by a client how to help with the development of a particularly eager volunteer. I think my advice applies to helping anyone grow, whether they are in a paid or unpaid position. You have two options: 1) develop the person, or 2) develop their role.

In the first option, you are able to provide professional development by enriching a person’s skills. Whether through coaching, mentoring, providing hands-on opportunities, or education you are always able to enhance the talents of someone. It may be helping someone gain confidence, public speaking ability, or leadership skills but this type of development is person-specific and provides value that stays with the person regardless of the role they have or if they even remain with the organization.

The second approach is to reimagine the role the person you wish to develop could play. A person may already be equipped to do more but be in need of a position that takes advantage of their capacity. Perhaps you provide them with a supervisory role, oversight of a project, or allow them to hold a similar position but in a new environment (e.g. new territory or new clientele). Maybe you could expand their responsibilities or move them into an entirely new role to allow them to have variety or new challenges that capitalize on the skills they have but are not fully using. In other words, enlarge the fence in which your star employee is allowed to run.

One of the key functions of a supervisor is to develop the staff members that report to them. Consider both ways of doing so as you craft development plans for your people.

leadership dot #3597: I see

Some of the most powerful words we can say to another are: “I see _____ in you.” Oftentimes, our greatest strengths are so innate that we can’t see them ourselves and need others to reflect them back to us.

Think of how empowering it would be for a hiring manager to say “I see such potential in you due to your ability to synthesize information,” or to share other specific reasons why they were hired. You would set the new employee for success by starting them out with confidence. A supervisor could say to a staff member in their 1:1 meetings: “I see such warmth in your ability to deal with diverse groups of people.” You can bet the employee will take that feedback and continue to exude grace in their relationships. A parent could say to their child: “I see artistic talent in you,” perhaps encouraging a life-long love affair with drawing.

We tend to see the negative in ourselves and take the positive for granted. Help others see the light within by explicitly calling out their gifts and contributions.